When we first noticed Katie Stack Morgan on Forbes 30 Under 30 list, we geeked out a little bit. Then we learned more about her and her work and we geeked out even more. Basically, Katie is responsible for creating the day-to-day plan to determine the observations and experiments NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover will make. How cool is that?! And what does that even look like day-to-day?! Well, you’re about to find out. Katie shares her motivation for pursuing her career, what she does on a daily basis, and what advice she would give women looking to get into her field.
Twitter Handle: @kstackmorgan
Location: Pasadena, CA
Occupation: Planetary geologist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
School: Williams College (B.A.), California Institute of Technology (M.Sc. and Ph.D.)
Secretly Obsessed With: Any show in the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise
On My Nightstand: Chapstick, a hair elastic, a water bottle, and whatever book I’m reading (“S” by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst is up next!). I also happen to have a real Mars rock on my nightstand! It’s a small piece of a Martian meteorite that traveled all the way from Mars to Earth and landed in the Sahara desert in 2012.
Last Thing You Read: “Kindred” by Octavia Butler
Tell us a little bit about what you do!
I’m a planetary geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where I work as a mission scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. My main research focus is studying the ancient rock record of Mars using images from rovers and orbiting spacecraft to better understand what the environment of early Mars was like. We know Mars today as a frozen, barren planet, but Mars might have been very different in the past and potentially more Earth-like. I’m particularly interested in finding out whether life could have ever survived on the surface of Mars.
How did you get started? How did you become interested in Martian sedimentological processes?
In college I started off thinking I wanted to study far-off stars and galaxies as an astronomer, but when I took a class in planetary geology, I realized that there was so much about our own planet Earth and solar system that I didn’t know! I was particularly intrigued by the planet Mars because, while it’s very different from the Earth today, we have so many clues that it might have once have had lakes, rivers, deltas, and active volcanoes covering the surface. For me, Mars is the perfect combination of pushing the boundaries of exploration in a place where no human has ever been before, but on a planet that once might have looked very familiar to Earth!
What does your daily routine look like?
We follow a pretty consistent schedule day-to-day while operating a rover on the surface of Mars, but every day brings new discoveries and new challenges. As a scientist on the mission, the first thing I do in the morning is take a look at the new data returned by the rover from the previous day’s activities. It’s particularly exciting when we’ve driven Curiosity to a new location, because I’m one of the very first people to see a new part of Mars no one has ever seen before! Then, I work together with a group of Curiosity scientists and engineers to decide what science activities we want to execute with the rover during the next day. We work on a strict timeline to make sure that we finish the plan in time to send it to Mars before the rover “wakes up” for its next day of work!
What key elements played into your success?
While I was growing up, my parents really encouraged my interest in science and the outdoors, whether it was taking me and my older brother to natural history museums to see the latest planetarium shows, visiting as many national parks as we could, or even just reading Ranger Rick or Kids Discover magazines with us. From early on, my parents supported my curiosity and always encouraged me to ask questions, which are two really important parts of being a scientist. I’ve also been fortunate to have truly fantastic academic mentors who have showed by example what it means to be a great scientist.
What’s the best piece of advice you received?
During a particularly cold and rainy afternoon field trip to study a local river, my college geology professor Ronadh Cox told our class, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only poorly prepared students.” Although I think she told us this in the moment to quiet our complaining about soaked clothes and soggy rain boots, this phrase has really stuck with me because I think it speaks to a much more broadly applicable lesson about how to approach adversity. You can choose to view a situation or set of circumstances in a negative way, because it’s sometimes easier to place the blame on someone or something else, or you can take control of your own attitude, actions, and preparedness and really make the situation work in your favor!
What struggles did you face getting to this point?
Being in a research or academic field can be really rewarding, but I’ve also found that it can be lonely and isolating. As a young scientist in a field where “success” is often measured by the number of papers you publish, the prestige of journals you are published in, and the success of your grant proposals, I’ve found it’s easy to get caught up in external pressures and a competitive frame of mind. I’m trying to work hard at putting these pressures in perspective by focusing on what I love to do and why I love to do it, cultivating positive and productive collaborations with colleagues, and not focusing so much on traditional academic metrics of “success.”
Who was the biggest influence in your work?
It’s hard to name just one influence because each one of the mentors I’ve had has impacted who I am and how I approach my work, but one of my best role models is my dad. He is also a scientist, and happens to be the smartest person I know! There was never any doubt in my mind that family was ultimately more important to my dad than academic or research success, and I strive to emulate his attitude toward a healthy work/life balance.
What accomplishment are you most proud of? When do you feel most successful?
I am truly honored and proud to know that I’ve played a role in the success of the Curiosity rover mission. Working on a Mars rover mission is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I appreciate that not everyone gets to experience the thrill of discovery and exploration that I feel every day as a member of the rover team. My main responsibility is to act as the geology liaison between the science and engineering teams at JPL, and I feel most successful when I know the work I’ve done running back and forth between the engineers and scientists has enabled the rover team to plan more complex science activities than originally expected.
What did you learn from working with the Curiosity rover team?
The Curiosity rover team is such a diverse group of people composed of engineers and scientists from different countries, with different backgrounds, and of all experience levels. Every day I learn something new about how to be a more effective listener and communicator, because being a member of the rover team isn’t always about having the loudest voice or the strongest opinion.
What’s it like to work at NASA’s JPL? How is the overall environment? Do you wish more women were working with you, or do you find it pretty balanced?
I’ve been so impressed with the attitude at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that no problem, science or engineering, is too big or challenging to overcome if you get the right people in the room to think about a solution. I also expected to experience more tension between the scientists and engineers because sometimes we work at cross-purposes when designing and operating space missions, but so far I’ve found that the NASA/JPL engineers are overwhelmingly receptive and appreciative of science input. There is still a gender imbalance at JPL as a whole and within the organization’s upper management, but there is a pretty good balance of men and women at all levels on the Curiosity rover team, so this isn’t something I feel impacted by on a daily basis.
What advice would you give to girls looking to enter your industry/space?
Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions! Asking questions is such an important part of science and being a scientist, and it is one of the quickest ways to stand out and distinguish yourself in a group of people. Also, sometimes just hearing a teacher or professor acknowledge that you’ve asked a good question can give you a boost of confidence!